In many ways, the Flames organizational depth mirrors the strengths and weaknesses of the main club: solid if unspectacular forward ranks supplemented by a strong blueline. A dearth of star talent in the Flames system was an issue GM Darryl Sutter inherited from the previous regime. It’s also an issue that has continued to plague the franchise due to consistently finishing inside the top half of the Western Conference, as well as Sutter’s penchant for trading away mid-round picks and then recouping those futures by trading down in the first round.
As such, the Flames find themselves awash in utility wingers and future fourth liners, but precious few prospects who project as top-six contributors at the NHL level. That relative weakness is somewhat offset by the club’s impressive number and variety of defenders at every level of the organization, and by some intriguing netminding prospects.
With the departure of Kyle Greentree in the Aaron Johnson trade, left wing may be the weakest area of the system currently. The organization boasts capable two-way forwards like David Van der Gulik, Brett Sutter, and Cam Cunning, none of whom project beyond a third or fourth line role in the NHL. Of the four, Van der Gulik has the highest offensive ceiling having twice scored 20+ goals in his professional career. Sutter is a hard worker, is decent in his own end and has seen spot duty in the big leagues, but is extremely limited in the offensive zone. Cunning, a grinding forward, is likely an AHLer for life due to a limited package of skills. Former WHL pugilist Ryley Grantham is a rookie in Abbotsford and may be groomed to take over enforcer duties for the parent club at some point in the near future.
University of Minnesota-Duluth forward Jordan Fulton is now 22 and nearing the end of his collegiate career. The former sixth-round pick has never put up notable offensive output and therefore falls in the same category as the guys listed above. Nick Larson is two years younger and is still a long way from making his professional debut. The Notre Dame rookie is built like a power forward at 6’2" and 202 pounds.
There may be some hope for an offensive infusion on the left side should recent draftees Ryan Howse and Spencer Bennett continue to develop favorably. The latter was a 31-goal scorer during his draft season and currently leads the Chilliwack Bruins in scoring with nine goals, 14 points in 14 games. Bennett made the leap to the WHL Portland Winterhawks from the BCHL and has gathered seven goals, 12 points in his first 16 games. Whether they can carry those contributions to the next level is an open question which won’t be answered any time soon.
The right side is marginally stronger than the left thanks to first rounders Kris Chucko and Greg Nemisz. Chucko has long struggled under the burden of expectations placed on a player of his draft position (26th overall). He has slowly but steadily developed his offensive game, culminating in a career-high 28 goals and 51 points last year in 74 games in the AHL. The big, bullish forward drives to the net with authority and is capable of burying rebounds from in close. His awkward skating stride and mediocre hockey sense have been impediments to him making the leap to the next level, but there are signs he’s making slow inroads in both areas.
Nemisz has been a notable scorer for the Windsor Spitfires ever since his draft season, including a 36-goal, 77-point effort last year. Tall, with a long reach and admirable offensive instincts, Nemisz is also defensively responsible. He was a significant piece of the Memorial Cup-winning squad and projects to be one of the Flames better prospects going forward.
AHLer Riley Armstrong was added this off-season. The brother of Atlanta Thrasher Colby Armstrong, Riley was undrafted out of junior, but has cobbled together a decent if unspectacular pro career. Although he managed 25 goals and 42 points as a Worcester Shark last year (as well as 101 PIM), the soon to be 25-year-old is probably little more than a veteran presence for the Abbotsford Heat. Another relative newcomer to the Flames farm team is uber-pest J.D. Watt, who spent most of the season skating in the ECHL in 2008-09. Watt has a knack of getting under the opposition’s skin and is a willing combatant, but is extremely limited in terms of raw ability. He’s a long shot to stick with the Heat, let alone press for an NHL job.
The Flames went a little off the board this past summer in selecting Swedish sniper Henrik Bjorklund in the fourth round. Big and rangy with a hard, accurate shot, Bjorklund has drawn some comparisons to former Flame Hakan Loob in his homeland, although the chances of him developing into a 50-goal scorer are slim. The 19-year-old is skating in the Swedish Elite League for Farestads BK Karlstad, which is a positive sign for the organization, given the quality of play in the SEL.
Perhaps the Flames strongest forward position is center, where the organization has been aggressively pursuing and drafting players since Sutter’s ascension. Former first rounder and now fringe NHLer Jamie Lundmark was an offensive leader for Quad City last year and promises to be among Abbotsford’s top scorers again this season as well as an injury fill-in for the parent team. John Armstrong and Hugo Carpentier had limited exposure to the pro game in the AHL last year in their rookie seasons and, given their average results in junior, are unlikely to be impact contributors for the big club at any point. Armstrong had a notable training camp as a 20-year-old in 2008, but consistent injury problems have sullied his development.
Rookie Mikael Backlund is roundly considered the most talented forward prospect in the Flames system. The former first-round choice has excellent vision, soft hands, a silky-smooth skating stride and a powerful shot. However, he’s had problems translating his abilities at the next level, particularly against older opponents. While Backlund has previously dominated his peers at the World Junior Championships and in the WHL, he nevertheless struggled in the Swedish Allsvenskan (farm league). In 54 games for Vasteras over two seasons, Backlund managed just 13 goals and eight assists. He also failed to impress in two consecutive training camps for the Flames, despite being given long looks and favorable playing circumstances (such as skating with Jarome Iginla and Olli Jokinen in pre-season games). A strong season in the AHL will go a long way towards answering questions about Backlund’s ability to compete against adults at the pro level.
Perhaps overlooked due to Backlund’s hype, WHL star Mitch Wahl has put together a strong junior career where, despite consistently playing as a checker against other team’s best players, he’s frequently finished among the Spokane Chiefs top scorers. Although not overly large, Wahl is fast and agile with a high hockey IQ and good puck distribution skills. Although it’s unlikely he’ll develop into a notable goal scorer in the NHL, Wahl’s versatility gives him a better shot at eventually making the leap.
Fellow WHLer Lance Bouma isn’t as offensively capable as Wahl, but is known for a strong all-around game and his ability to lead his peers. Named the Vancouver Giants captain recently, Bouma combines a good work ethic and tenacious disposition to create havoc for the opposition.
Aaron Marvin, Gaelen Patterson and C.J. Severyn are long shots of differing quality. Marvin is a bigger, strong skating pivot who has scored at a decent rate in college. Severyn is more a grinder with limited offensive ability, while Patterson was a late-round pick recently who isn’t especially outstanding at anything. All three are years away.
The Flames organization is bursting at the seams with capable defenders. From recent graduates Mark Giordano and Adam Pardy, to "tweeners" like Staffan Kronwall and Aaron Johnson, to notable youngsters Matt Pelech, John Negrin and Keith Aulie, the franchise has both depth and breadth of skill on the blueline. In Pelech, Aulie, Gord Baldwin and Brett Palin, the Flames have big-bodied, defensively capable players in the Robyn Regehr/Cory Sarich mold. Pelech and Aulie in particular are well thought of in the organization due to their massive size and relatively good mobility. The former is older and a first-round draft pick, but his progression in the AHL has been slow and halting. His five-game stint with the Calgary Flames last season went well, but he has yet to consistently dominate the AHL. There are hopes he’ll take the next step within the next few seasons. Aulie is a monstrous specimen standing at 6’6", a World Junior champion and a former top-pairing defenseman for the Brandon Wheat Kings. He improved steadily throughout his WHL career and will given every opportunity to continue his favorable development in Abbotsford.
In contrast, recent junior graduates John Negrin and Keith Seabrook are agile, puck-moving defenders who are capable at ably quarterbacking a power play. As is OHL stand-out T.J. Brodie, who led all Saginaw Spirit defenders in scoring last year with 12 goals and 50 points. Recent first-round pick Tim Erixon is also a smooth-skating, rushing rearguard who can lead the attack and penalty kill with equal aplomb. He is entering his second season in the Swedish Elite league for Skelleftea HC and is likely to see some significant minutes despite being one of the youngest players on the squad.
With Curtis McElhinney struggling to find his footing at the NHL level and Matt Keetley failing to perform in the AHL, the opportunity for Leland Irving to make the leap may arrive sooner rather than later. Keetley was a Memorial Cup winner in junior and had a decent professional debut, but stumbled last season when he was handed the reins as Quad Cities starter.
A tall, athletic goalie, Keetley nevertheless faltered with a sub-.900 save percentage, opening the door for rookie Irving who outplayed the older ‘tender down the stretch and established himself as the go-to guy going forward. The 26th overall choice in 2006 is technically adept and cool under pressure base. He has been considered Miikka Kiprusoff’s heir apparent since being drafted and is probably the best talent in the organization’s limited crop of puck stoppers.
Recently drafted Joni Ortio is an unknown commodity at this point. The 18-year-old hails from Turku Finland, the same town that has produced NHLers Aki Berg, Mikko and Saku Koivu as well as Kiprusoff himself.
There’s some concern the Flames system lacks a legitimate star who will eventually replace Iginla’s contributions. While forwards like Backlund, Nemisz and Wahl have shown some promise at lower levels, there’s little chance a similar star will emerge from the current crop of forwards, which is mainly comprised of grinders, checkers and "character" role players.
In contrast, Calgary’s back end is young and richly staffed, starting with NHL stars like Bouwmeester and Phaneuf, all the way down to teenagers like Brodie and Erixon. While question marks may soon arise about the organization’s future at forward, the Flames are well positioned on the blueline, to the degree that Sutter may well consider focusing drafting priority up front going forward.